Facebook lets you Google Social

Getting search in your social

Facebook is finally bringing social search. Or more accurately, adding search to social. Facebook has actually been providing a social layer to search for a while now, with both Bing and Blekko using Facebook information to help curate their results for signed in users. Facebook’s Graph Search is different. From the information available to date, it seems to be far more about adding search to their users’ social experience.

The initial rollout will be very limited, with Facebook saying that it will only cover the following areas at first:

People: “friends who live in my city,” “people from my hometown who like hiking,” “friends of friends who have been to Yosemite National Park,” “software engineers who live in San Francisco and like skiing,” “people who like things I like,” “people who like tennis and live nearby”

Photos: “photos I like,” “photos of my family,” “photos of my friends before 1999,” “photos of my friends taken in New York,” “photos of the Eiffel Tower”

Places: “restaurants in San Francisco,” “cities visited by my family,” “Indian restaurants liked by my friends from India,” “tourist attractions in Italy visited by my friends,” “restaurants in New York liked by chefs,” “countries my friends have visited”

Interests: “music my friends like,” “movies liked by people who like movies I like,” “languages my friends speak,” “strategy games played by friends of my friends,” “movies liked by people who are film directors,” “books read by CEOs”

As it is only in limited beta, there isn’t much discussion about its ability to handle natural language queries or what kind of information is available. But there is one other interesting thing to come from today’s announcement: Bing’s involvement.

Bing and Facebook

On their own blog shortly after the announcement from Facebook, Bing outlined how they were involved in “Evolving Search on Facebook”. Bing has worked with Facebook since 2008, starting by powering their web search, with AdCentre placing ads next to the organic results. Since then, their relationship appears to have worked, with Bing continuing to provide search while Facebook took over the ads in 2010 and also hinted at bringing public data from Facebook’s API into their own search experience in October 2009. Far more recently Facebook data has been integrated into Bing’s search results.

Putting the Value into the Search in Social

If all the rage surrounding Facebook’s attempts to find the perfect way to handle EdgeRank is to be believed, they have a real discoverability problem. The news feed works just fine for some light social stalking, and with their existing search features all but broken, it is almost impossible to unearth the kind of information that Facebook seems to want to target with Graph Search, and somehow advertise against.

Graph Search should fix discoverability and provide more navigation tools to their users, allowing Facebook to turn one of the world’s larger collections of user information into something both engaging and useful. Or at least as engaging and useful as the quality of the information it has collected would allow.

Seen from a data perspective, the acquisition of Instagram and Facebook’s integration services such as Spotify make a lot of sense. While Facebook is far more device-agnostic than it used to be, it still does not completely own its users’ online life. Providing a platform and social integration for services such as Spotify and outright buying others like Instagram extends Facebook’s ability to collect information on its users’ behaviour beyond its own touch points.

Why this Matters?

Ultimately Facebook needs impressions. Facebook’s main source of revenue is advertising, from banners to sponsored stories. These ads lose value and more importantly traffic when there is no-one there to look at them. To ensure that there are enough eyeballs to go around for the advertising inventory that Facebook needs to sell to keep the shareholders happy and the servers running, their users need to be kept on the site. And this is where engaging, sticky content comes in. Despite the Internet’s love of a false dichotomy, Graph Search does not need to be about beating Google in search. It merely needs to improve Facebook for its users, so they can help Facebook meet its business objectives.

The gap between where you are and where you should be

The gap between where you are and where you should be

3am is not the busiest time of day for search. Nor is it the best for conversions. For organic traffic, this does not matter. Ranks do not change depending on the time of day or week in the search results. The same is not true for paid search.

Search activity and volume change over time, and most of the time, in predictable ways. There are patterns that repeat from day to day, from week to week and from year to year. These changes over time can be important for managing organic search engine marketing. Understanding how demand and interest change and when is important for planning site development and content.

Typically the cycles in demand that are important to search engine optimisation (SEO) are longer than those that matter in paid search (though updates like Caffeine have shortened these). Generating visibility for specific changes in search within the organic results is not as straightforward as a media buy.

Timing and effectiveness are limited by how appropriate the content is for the targeted queries, how successful promotional and linking activity was and how the search engines crawl and rank the content. Paid search does not have the same limitations.

Visibility, Productivity and Competitive Bidding

Adwords Ad Schedule

AdWords Ad Schedule feature

Paid search and display advertising platforms such as AdWords let advertisers manage their campaigns by hour of day and day of the week. How an optimised campaign will use these tools will depend on industry trends, how and when their target market uses search and their own objectives. Unfortunately there is usually more than one advertiser doing this.

Choosing when to push for more traffic and impression share on AdWords and other realtime bidding-based platforms is important. Cost per acquisition (CPA), click through rate (CTR) and conversion rate (CVR) are all good indicators for what is performing and what isn’t.

Another factor to take into consideration is competition. If a day or time works for you, it is likely that it would work just as well for your competitors, and be just as desirable to them as a result. Consequently, when a particular time or day stops performing as well as expected, it could be due to increased competetion rather than just the market. AdWords provides a number of metrics that make it possible to analyse for competitive pressure:

  • Search impression share
  • Average position
  • Average cost per click (CPC)
  • CTR

Search impression share is the most straightforward of these: it does what it says. The information is available down to ad group level, and assuming these are tightly themed, it will give a good indication of what kind of share of voice you have within those query groups.

The other metrics do not directly measure competition, but they can show its effects. Average position is not a reliable metric. It represents an average of all the positions the ads have appeared in for the period, but gives no indication of spread. However, it can indicate large general movement. Changes in CPC and CTR are more reliable indications of competitive activity. Changes in CPC can signal changes in bidding and CTR can also indicate changes in position. Together these two metrics can indicate changes in competitor activity, barring other confounding factors.

The Why of Benchmarking

Monitoring changes within the account can only provide insights when compared to something. Benchmarking makes the difference between identifying a shift in the market and noise. Choosing what to benchmark campaign changes against will depend on what other information is available. Other campaigns that experience the same user behaviour and market similar products are one possibility; organic search traffic for the same kinds of terms is another covering a similar time period.

While there are a few ways to approach analysing and processing this information to create actionable insights, setting some kind of a benchmark matters. Because of AdWords’ nature, many of the changes in cost and behaviour are as likely to be caused by your competition as by changes made to the campaigns and changes in actual user behaviour. Consequently, it is important to be able to differentiate between each.

Finding dates on Google

Finding dates on Google

Event dates such as the one above seem to be another example of Google’s drive to providing a richer, more informative Search Engine Result Page (SERP). It certainly is interesting that this kind of information seems to have only just started to show up. Especially as earlier this week Google announced a great new tool for webmasters, the Data Highligher.

Now available through Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) the Data Highlighter makes it easier to help Google identify structured data on your site. For now the tool is only available for English language sites and for events related information like concerts, festivals, sporting events and festivals.

The Data Highlighter as it is rolled out will become a popular alternative to Schema.org. It will make some forms of structured data easier to implement while requiring fewer resources and it is included with one of Google’s own widely used tools.

Structured Data’s Slow Burn

Movie Times on Google

Movie Times on Google

Structured date in search isn’t new. Microformats have been around for a while and used by search engines to provide a richer search experience, Schema.org is simply the latest. When Schema.org was released it was overshadowed by Google+, which was announced at the same time.

Unsurprisingly as Google has increased the amount of information it is displaying directly in the search results, structured data has been attracting more and more attention. Google’s release of the Knowledge Graph, the inclusion of structured data preview tools and Bing’s own snapshot feature has certainly indicated an accelerating shift in how search engines serve their customers.

Decision Engines and Portals

The Hobbit Movie

The Hobbit Movie

Search is currently far more than just a list of links as Bing, Google and newer products such as Siri and Google Now are getting better able to answer a user’s question directly and without sending them to a different site or application. With the amount of information now available on the SERPs and the tools such as calculator’s and converters usable from the search bar, it is almost as if Google is becoming a portal.

For many stakeholders in search this is a good thing. Users get the information that they want easier and faster by avoiding poorly designed sites and obtuse navigation. Providing a better experience for searchers allows Google to maintain it’s position in the market, and by doing this means the search engine can provide their advertisers a large potential audience.

And view through conversions are gold

And view through conversions are gold

Dodgy math and a lot of numbers are a bad mix and paid search provides enough of the former to create ample opportunity for the latter. Like many other forms of online advertising, paid search generates masses of data and often leads some apparent professionals to confuse information with insights. Like many other forms of online advertising, data is easily available through platforms like Adwords which it leads some apparent professionals to confuse information with insights.

Recommendations for account expansion based on historic placement or search query reports filtered for cost per acquisition (CPA) or conversion rate (CVR) isn’t as useful as it may seem. In practice these lists are mostly populated by junk. Placements and queries that just happened to get their one conversion a year within the reporting period on so little traffic it manages to match the criteria used. This isn’t data, and it certainly isn’t an insight. But it can cost you money.

Math to the Rescue!

Fortunately there are simple, robust tools you can used to deal with this. Tools able to find what is likely to work and identify the riskier options. It’s called math. Numeracy and a familiarity with statistics and probability can be useful in marketing. In the scenario outlined above, the biggest issue is determining how close the data collected reflects reality.

Discovering how frequently a conversion occured is easy. Strictly speaking, a conversion rate is a measure of what has happened. Just because Keyword F got a conversion rate of 50% from the sample below does not mean it would do this again over 10 or 100 clicks. This holds true for any of the examples below. While this can be an indication of future performance, assumuing a large enough sample and that nothing changes, as the number of clicks go down, so does the reliability of this number.

Keyword Traffic Successes Success Rate
A 100 10 10%
B 80 5 6.25%
C 60 10 16.67%
D 40 15 3.75%
E 20 5 25%
F 10 5 50%

How Wrong are You?

While this data won’t necessarily tell you what to expect for the next 10, 20 or 100 clicks, you can determine within what range the actual conversion rate would be. Confidence Intervals can be used to determine the range within which the actual success rate is likely to be 95% (or 50%, or 99%, or whatever) of the time.

Keyword Traffic Successes Success Rate Interval
A 100 10 10% 4.12% – 15.88%
B 80 5 6.25% 0.95% – 11.55%
C 60 10 16.67% 7.23% – 26.1%
D 40 15 37.5% 22.5% – 52.5%
E 20 5 25% 6.02% – 43.98%
F 10 5 50% 19.01% – 80.99%

Calculating these ranges was done using Wolfram Alpha’s Confidence interval for binomial tool. Unsurprisingly, the smaller the sample used, the greater the range.

Use Numbers Better

There is no excuse for getting this wrong. Not with the easy availability of these kinds of tools and the information to use them. Probability and Statistics is very much relevant to analysing and managing paid search campaigns, much in the same way that Economics can be useful too. Be it constructing a formula in a spreadsheet or using an online calculator, looking a little bit harder at the data you seek to base decisions on isn’t all that hard.

The Google disavow link tool has just been released and unsurprisingly Google’s version attracted a lot more attention than Bing’s version. This new Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) feature gives those with “unnatural link” warnings and concerns over Penguin related penalties something to do other than trying to get links removed by disinterested or non-existent site owners or past SEO agencies.

You weren't using those links right?

You weren’t using those links right?

While removing these links from the web is still the preferred solution, Google will typically ignore links submitted via this tool once they have been recrawled. The links are submitted as a list in a text file, and each site can only submit one. These lists can be updated by downloading the original file, altering it and resubmitting through the same tool. The links submitted will be recrawled before the change can be applied, possibly taking weeks. Google also advises to wait a while after submitting a disavow request before submitting a reconsideration request.

The Link Builder’s Dilemma

One of the best links you can get for SEO is from a good site that no-one else, especially your competitors, has access to. These kind of links are not common, and usually require some work or cost to acquire. This also means the process isn’t scalable or easily commoditised. As a result most link profiles are full of shared link resources. These kind of sites include forums, directories, aggregators, news and resource sites, blogs that accept guest posts and anything with poorly moderated comments. Unfortunately this is also why Google is attempting to discourage this behaviour through “unnatural link” notices and penalties, and requesting disclosure of purchased and artificial links as a part of this.

In this environment the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a good metaphor for how the behaviour of SEOs can affect themselves and others in the industry. One SEO disclosing links and practices contrary to Google’s Guidelines will affect others in the industry. This provides information to Google for identifying patterns in behaviour and can even result in direct penalties. Reconsideration requests, “unnatural links” notices and the Disavow tool seem simply to encourage this behaviour further by offering a benefit.

Hypothetically, if no-one discloses all the shared resources they are using, there is a chance that Google won’t be able to accurately identify them. Conversely, if enough people provide Google with information on these networks, then most other sites that rely on them are likely to suffer as they are penalised or their links are disregarded. Ideally it is not in everyone’s interest to disclose shared link resources that may be violating Google’s guidelines.

Choosing Disclosure

The Disavow tool will get used, and for a lot of people it will probably be very valuable, especially after the predations of Google’s Penguin algorithm. Another certainty is that Google will collect a lot of data from this. From outing competitors and annoying link spammers to disclosing huge lists of links in reconsideration requests, collecting data on what other people think is a bad link isn’t new. It is just a little easier.

To Disavow or not to Disavow

To Disavow or not to Disavow

As their name implies, shared link resources are likely to link to more than one site, providing them with better rankings, nothing at all or a penalty. Sometimes it can be hard to work out which of the three it actually is. Which can be an issue when it comes to picking which links to have removed or disavowed.

Winning the Link Builder’s Dilemma

In the Prisoner’s Dilemma both the players are equal. They have the same options, the same resources and the same consequences apply to their collective decisions. This isn’t really the case with the Link Builder’s Dilemma.

Perhaps if the original Prisoner’s Dilemma had one player committing robbery and the other adding a little murder to the outing it would be a truer reflection. In the case of the Link Builder’s Dilemma, not all the players have the same risks, and some are better able to endure the negative effects of choosing to disclose more than their competitors.

Playing the Game

Disavowing links purportedly provides a benefit. Providing a list of links for Google to disregard should assist reconsideration requests and lift penalties, provided that the list covers the links affecting the site.

As it is hard to tell which links are having a negative effect on a site’s rankings, there is an incentive to over-report and list everything. Especially if the site in question has a good range of other, natural links. Brand sites (Site A) are likely to fall into this category. They have the resources to attract links others might not have access to through sponsorship, mainstream media activity and their place in the community. Often these entities have also engaged in other link building activity to remain competitive prior to the latest series of changes.

Other sites that are more reliant on shared link resources are less likely to over-report, as the risk of torching otherwise still valuable links carries greater consequences. These two kinds of sites come into conflict when they share link resources. If one disavows and flags links the other believes are legitimate and necessary, and if Google eventually uses this data to remove any value this link can pass, then the one that didn’t disavow will lose out.

Sites likely to fall into this second group are pure web businesses (Site B) such as aggregators and other online services without the resources to have established a good brand or presence throughout the community: sites that are not likely to be able to generate the same kind of links just by existing as Site A.

Hypothetical and Simplified Link Builder’s Dilemma
Site A Over-Disavows Site A Disavows Site A Doesn’t Disavow
Site B Over-Disavows Penalty Lifted, Site A has a link advantage Penalty lifted, Site A has a link advantage Site B Penalty Lifted
Site B Disavows Penalty Lifted, Site A has a link advantage Penalty Lifted, Some shared link resources remain Site B Penalty Lifted
Site B Doesn’t Disavow Site A Penalty Lifted Site A Penalty Lifted Status Quo

Realistically, it will always be in the interest of sites like Site A to over-report and disavow any link that could be associated with a penalty. Established sites will usually have enough links that losing some shared resources that are providing good links is acceptable. Sites with a profile like Site B are not likely to be in this position.

Who Wins

To say that the Disavow tool will render all shared link resources ineffective is a massive assumption. It is far more likely that this is just one more source of data for Google to use in building and training their algorithms.

Something like the Disavow tool is certainly needed. Attempting to get thousands of comment spam, footer and splog links taken offline is not practical, and as links have been seen to be effective for so long, there are a lot of them out there.

Like any other change in how Google collects and uses data, there are going to be consequences, and as with any other change, there will be some who benefit, some who lose and some who are unaffected. Though if I were pressed to choose a winner in this environment, it would be those sites that are not reliant on just shared link resources.